Addicted to forgiveness?

May 27, 2007 | By | 6 Replies More

Ebonmuse has raised an intriguing point at his site, Daylight Atheism.  He suggests that unrealistic expectations promulgated by many churches throw many people into disorienting existential spirals.  Instead of acknowledging the limitations of human animals up front, many church-goers (with the encouragement of their religious leaders), conceive of their journeys through life as a constant series of personal failures.  Unable to account for their inabilities to live up to unreasonable expectations, they become vulnerable to cults of forgiveness.

By imposing unrealistic, impossible-to-follow strictures on its followers, Christianity sets them up for failure. And when that failure inevitably happens, it produces guilt and shame among those followers, reinforcing the teaching that all human beings are incorrigible sinners and encouraging them to cling even harder to Christianity for salvation . . .

If . . . we try to deny human nature and suppress these instincts altogether, pressure builds up until they explode. This is what happened to [Ted] Haggard, just as it happened to many other famous fundamentalist hypocrites. But instead of taking the right lesson from this, Christianity assumes the answer is to try even harder next time. As part of this, many Christian groups attempt to take away people’s access to the information they need to make responsible decisions – abstinence-only sex education being a prime example – making the likelihood of a poor outcome even greater.

This is a very effective and insidious tactic. As I’ve written before, it’s like convincing people that they are sick in order to sell them the cure. But in this case, the cure makes you feel even sicker and sets up a vicious cycle of dependency. Taught by Christianity that they are sinners in need of forgiveness, believers perpetually return to Christianity for the forgiveness they believe only it can give them. Believers can become “addicted to forgiveness”. This is a very common theme in deconversion stories, where former Christians testify how their terror of damnation led them to repeatedly ask Jesus for salvation, out of fear that they hadn’t done it right the last time or had committed some grave sin since then. Religious authorities who promise forgiveness for a price are the pushers in this scheme, and like Haggard, some of them use their own product. (The price need not be monetary – it often includes contributing to a religious leader’s preferred political causes.) And over time, as with all drugs, the effectiveness of the forgiveness “drug” wanes, impelling believers to become even more rigid and dogmatic in their devotions to win the same feeling of relief.

I wholehearted agree with Ebonmuse on this point.  I can’t think of a better way to convince people to take on an unrealistic “solution” than to convince them that there is a fake “problem” in the first place (why am I thinking of Iraq?). 

What’s the “problem” sold by so many churches?  It’s that we are constantly screwing up. We are bad children, naughty children.  Those of us who are really bad must go to hell.  Most of us, though, can be reformed through those church-sanctioned Sunday morning “time-outs.” 

The key, though, is that we are defective semi-ethereal beings, rather than clever animals.   We are “failures,” not simply feeling our way though life by employing hit-and-miss heuristics.   We are “sinful,” thus requiring forgiveness by people and gods less defective than ourselves.  Many churches teach that ensouled being should strive for “perfection,” as though we aren’t comprised of (sophisticated) animal instincts.  The fact that churches convince us of an alleged battle between a body and a soul requires a spiritual prescription dispensed by a specially trained person of the cloth.  We are helpless to heal ourselves.  Even when we are healed, we are still sinful and, therefore, defective. 

If we could only get past this con job offered by many churches (that we are “bad”), we could start learning how to get along, rather than spending so much time and energy being competitively judgmental.   We could work together to seek a reasonable homeostasis for our vast human collective, rather than employing dysfunctional nomadic or Dark Ages techniques. We could start thinking in terms of ecology rather than morality.

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Category: Good and Evil, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. Skblllzzzz says:

    Clearly christianity isn't the only cult that pulls this trick. Lots of cults and sects try to bind people to them by creating and exploiting inner conflict.

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    I am always suspicious of someone who tries to sell me something by first trying to convince me I have a problem that I cannot sense and that has no objective evidence to support its existence. Yes, Iraq was the first thing that came to my mind, too.

    I've written before about the vicious circle that Christianity uses to snare people: trying to make them feel miserable and frightened, so the Church can then supply a "solution" to their "problem." In some cases, it is only an imaginary problem (e.g., Original Sin), in other cases it is actual misery: see, http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=418#comment-2….

    In view of the above, perhaps it should be no surprise that so many conservative Christians supported, and continue to support, George Bush's decision to invade Iraq.  Those folks have demonstrated that they can be easily manipulated with dire warnings about imaginary dangers (e.g., eternal damnation), so Bush and his neo-con pals merely tapped into that tendency.  He filled their heads full of terrifying, but fictional, stories about "evil doers" and mushroom clouds, and they fell for it hook, line and sinker.  As in their religion, they didn't investigate whether the stories had any basis in fact, they just blindly believed what they were told and went running to whomever they believed would protect them from their imaginary boogie men.

  3. Edgar Montrose says:

    Ah; we must be careful to distinguish between imaginary problems and imaginary solutions. I'll start with the specific and work toward the general.

    There is a very real and present danger of international terrorism, aimed specifically at Americans and American interests. We can write doctoral dissertations about why that danger exists, but I don't think that there is any doubt that does — it is not an imaginary problem. But attacking Iraq, destroying civil rights via the Patriot Act, condoning and even encouraging torture, etc. … even re-electing G.W. Bush; these are all imaginary solutions. I believe that the American government, and the American people, are genuine in their desire to eliminate the danger (the real problem). The trouble is, their approach is profoundly, indescribably, astonishingly wrong-headed (the imaginary solution). Worse than that, their reasoning is so unsophisticated that they are unable to understand that a desire to change the WAY that we address the problem is NOT the same as abandoning the fight against the problem. (I wrote in http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=831, "… they are unable to recognize that there is a difference between 'doing the right thing' and 'doing the right thing the right … way'. This inability to differentiate between 'what' one does and 'how' one does it represents an immaturity and lack of sophistication-of-thought that I believed impossible in the modern world.") And, of course, there are always those with hidden agenda, who view the situation as an opportunity to advance those agenda.

    Generalizing, now; I believe that there is a need for a set of social and cultural rules to prevent the very real danger of what can broadly be termed "man's inhumanity to man". Religion is an attempt to solve that problem (the problem of "Evil"), but, again, it is often an imaginary solution. When religion resorts to the very actions that it condemns in its own tenets, in order to gain control over non-believers and to maintain control over believers, it has failed as a solution. Point out its hypocrisy, and one is "succumbing to Evil". Same lack of sophistication of thought, same opportunity for advancement of hidden adenda.

    Maybe everybody needs to go back to school. In school, there are two kinds of answers to test questions: right answers and wrong answers. Apparently people have forgotten that "any" answer is not the same as the right answer — completely wrong answers receive no more credit than not answering at all. But there is the opportunity for partial credit.

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    Edgar brings up good points. Only accept "right" answers. To carry it a step further, consider that even verified problems don't necessarily have good answers.

    Case in Point: Forest Fires. In the mid 20th century, we had a marvelous campaign to stop forest fires. Valuable timer was burning, and occasionally human lives were endangered. After generations of fire suppression, we have seriously overgrown undergrowth that makes every little flare up into a likely disaster. Now, lives are lost with almost every fire, and huge swaths of forest are lost where before the losses were measured in acres.

    The answer to the binary question of, "Should we stop forest fires?" turns out to be "neither".

    Terrorism is a useful political tool for groups that have no alternative ways of gathering attention. There is no way to stop it short of solving the problems of those who resort to it. So-called suicide bombers are dedicated, bright, young people who are assured by all whom they meet of accolades in this world and rewards in the next for their sacrifice.

    As the last 5 years have proved, eliminating a dictator who kept the competing terrorists in check in his lands was not the optimum solution. Especially not at the monetary cost of (for example) several NASA Mars probes per day.

    Back to religion: Even if it were ever proved that some form of afterlife existed, and we knew its nature, we still would have the question of which of the thousands of variations on how to make the best of that particular afterlife are beneficial. A situation guaranteed to foster insecurity.

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    Further to Edgar's comment: no one here has suggested that international terrorism is fictional, but the horror stories Bush and his staff told in the run-up to their invasion were manufactured lies deliberately designed to paint a picture that was both fictional and far more frightening than the one that actually existed. His supporters, and even his detracters, fell for these lies, seemingly without question or skepticism. Why? Why were so many people so easily duped?

    Perhaps one reason is that America's predominant religion functions much the same way: first it tells horror stories to scare people, then it offers itself as the solution to "save" them from these imagined, invisible horrors. It's the same game plan Bush and his cronies used to sell their invasion. Yes, of course, global terrorism is real, but the invisible WMD threat from Iraq that Bush spoke of was not, nor is much of Bush's ongoing rhetoric about al Qaeda. It is mere hyperbole designed to persuade, just like the horrors described in the New Testament are designed to persuade people to declare faith in Christianity. Maybe the reason this game plan works so well on Americans (and doesn't work so well on Europeans, for example) is that Americans are somehow mentally or culturally wired to fall for it.

    I'm not suggesting Bush & Co., consciously thought this through (I don't think they're that smart), merely that they stumbled upon a game plan that resonated with many Americans, possibly for the same reason Christianity resonates with many Americans.

    Even today, there is no objective evidence that the boogie men Bush talks about in his speeches (i.e., a global network of terrorist sleeper cells called Al Qaeda) are anywhere near as big of a threat as he claims they are. They are not powerful enough to destroy America, nor even to change America's way of life, yet these are exactly the sorts of doomsday pictures Bush continues to paint, and it apparently continues to play well with his conservative Christian supporters, and with many other Americans. Indeed, it played well enough for him to gain a second term in office despite his conspicuous failure to find WMDs in Iraq, his conspicuous failure to secure peace (or even stability) there, his conspicuous failure to properly handle the Katrina disaster, his conspicuous failure to reduce the size of government, etc. The fear card seems to work very well on a large percentage of Americans — a fact that has already caused many Republican presidential hopefuls to continue banging the same "global terrorism" drum, in the hope that it will work for them the way it worked for Bush.

    This raises the question: does Christianity cause Americans to be excessively susceptible to fear mongering? If so, then we could have many dark times ahead. As Edgar points out, it is bad enough when we invent imaginary solutions to real problems, but if we become lost in a fog of imaginary problems — as we have with Bush's fear mongering — then we will waste a lot of time, money and effort on imaginary solutions (literally, fighting wars that do not need to be fought), while our real problems (education, healthcare, elder care, etc.) will worsen for lack of resources.

  6. Dan Klarmann says:

    Remember that historians call the period when the (Roman) Christian Church held sway over western civilization "The Dark Ages."

    The founders of our country were of the Enlightenment school. Nominally Christian, but all believers in separating the Church from political authority. Smart men at the dawn of modern times.

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